Most everyone who’s grown up in LA has had this happen: a friend or relative from out of town complains that LA drivers are rude.
Whenever I hear this, I usually nod my head and mumble something noncommittal because they are usually so convinced of this.
But inside, I’m thinking—LA drivers are rude? How so?
When I ask my friends what they mean by “rude,” they usually complain that LA drivers won't slow down for them, or make eye contact, or do any of the sort of friendly signaling that they might be used to.
Well, yes, anyone who expects eye contact or slowing down or friendly signaling is going to be disappointed. But is that rude?
People on the bus or on the subway aren’t making eye contact either.
Besides, I have driven in many places, and I’ve never felt particularly unsafe driving in Los Angeles. We drive. We change lanes. Someone won’t let me in to the lane? Whatever I’ll wait for the next one. Someone cuts in front of me? Fine.
Perhaps what is being called rude is just a simple, single-minded focus on getting where we need. If I interacted with everyone on the freeway, I would be a puddle of nerves 5 minutes into my commute.
Being friendly takes too much energy, just as being angry or being anything else takes too much energy.
Instead, I lock onto getting home and that my goal and that's all it is.
There's no intentional rudeness, no venom there.
In a way, driving in LA resembles being a Komodo dragon. Komodo dragons had been thought to possess venom, or at least the saliva that was so septic that it was de facto venom. How else could they kill so effectively?
Komodo dragon saliva may have a mild venom, anticoagulants to help their prey bleed out, but really there’s no secret to their hunting. Where its prey goes, the Komodo dragon follows. They just lock on their meal. If it can bite, it takes a bite. If it misses, so what? Whether it be a few minutes to a few hours, it’s locked onto getting food and that its goal and that's all it is.
In his 1993 article “Electric Cough-Syrup Acid Test,” the counterculture author James Hogshire relates a similar experience with Dextromethorphan hydrobromide (the “DM” in cough syrups such as Robitussin DM). In fact, he claimed that drinking a bottle of Robitussin gave him a reptile mind.
When he was hungry, he ate. When he was no longer hungry, he stopped.
How he writes of seeking a hamburger is eerily reminiscent of a Komodo Dragon stalking a water buffalo.
Hogshire writes that the social customs had become alien to him. He was somewhat aware that he needed to follow them, but that he could not “comprehend what the hell those things might be.”
Which would be perfect way to seem rude, wouldn’t it?
In Hogshire’s own words, he had "a reptile brain." Yet, if all that separates us from the Komodo dragons is 8 ounces of Robitussin DM, what does that say about us?
Well, Komodo dragons aren't the only ones who lock in on their prey this way—nor even the ones who do it best.
Persistence hunting—tracking your quarry, wounding it, then following until it is too tired or to go on—is also a very human thing. It is used even now, in some areas of Australia and Africa—usually in barren, arid, flat areas, lacking materials for weapons or poisons or the terrain to ambush or trap.
And, it does seem that our bodies are set up for endurance. Our ability to perspire keeps us cool, while our bipedal gait is optimized for very long distances.
Yet, such a body is useless without a complementary mind. Perhaps our minds, for all their social niceties, retain a capacity for hyper focus, to lock unto an objective, to filter everything else, until said objective is obtained.
Driving around Los Angeles, I zone out to everything else. Sure, I am aware of my surroundings. I follow the traffic laws. But I just want home.
Just like everyone else on the road.
Hogshire noted that while under Robitussin, he could still drive—which makes perfect sense, if everyone else was in reptile mode, as well.
But what would that mean? Chaos, carnage?
Not at all.
Because persistence hunting does have drawbacks. The entire time, you’re fighting fatigue, and you still haven’t eaten. So Komodo dragons, and even humans, cooperate.
I notice that, even in the worst traffic, no one’s purposely trying to obstruct each other. No one is going to slam on the brakes to yell at each other. Most people don’t even touch their horns.
Everyone is too tired for that garbage. On the freeway, if somebody cuts in front of me and there was a gap, I’m just “go you,” knowing that eventually my gap will come, too. Getting mad only slows everybody down.
On the streets, when a traffic light goes out, everybody waits their turn. This isn't because everybody's nice, it's that everybody gets through in the minimum amount of time.
“Goodwill to All” it is not, but it IS cooperation.
For all the tales of road rage, traffic usually crawls along with as little hassle or aggression as possible, because we've already waited so long, and if we have any extra delays in getting home, it's not going to be good.
And so, when I think about traffic and this whole idea of consciously connecting with people and saying hello, and waving “by all means go into the lane in front of me,” I just can't do it.
Not because I'm trying to be rude, but because I know that home is two hours away. An hour and a half away if I'm lucky. Home.
Ahead of me is home, and I will get there, as sure as a hungry Komodo dragon or my weary ancestors will get their meals—while I am on the road, nothing else matters but home.
All I can do is focus on the road ahead of me, and get home safely.
And I hope that you do, too.
Cover photo: Mi. Sha/Collection: 500px Prime/Getty Images*peter boy12qq12, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
**By Mats Stafseng Einarsen - http://www.einarsen.no/Indonesia/Flores/Flores.html (own work), CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1838838
***By concept and design: Fiann Paul, artwork: Fiann Paul & Zilap Estudio - Uploaded upon request of the author, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83267044